Images from Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue (2008)
The opening prompt for all three of the stories featured in the documentary.
A shot of a young person engulfed by media imagery in Brian’s segment. Presented early in the narrative, the image visually rationalizes why a young subject is likely to feel confused and disoriented.
In Brian’s segment, illustrations are used to explain how the Electoral College undercuts democratic principles. Here the elector stands tall over a group of average voters.
Voters are dwarfed by the institution of the Electoral College.
Disproportionate allotment of electors is the primary social problem, according to Brian.
Shon speaks with his brother, an Iraq war veteran, about the brother’s views on voting.
Brian’s skepticism is overturned by his interview with Miguel Martinez, a New York City councilman.
Young people dancing at the “We Run this Vote: Youth Arts and Politics Festival,” where all three protagonists speak about what they’ve learned about voting, citizenship, and the political process as a result of making the video.
The video concludes with a final pitch to the audience to participate in the upcoming election by providing the web address for “Rock the Vote.”
Tidiane formally explains to the audience his plans to speak with a political science professor about his inability to vote as an immigrant.
In the run up to the Presidential Election of 2008, a great deal of mainstream political discourse centered on the influence and potential impact of the youth vote. In addition to the work of Rock the Vote, the Obama campaign encouraged the perception of its candidate as an especially “youth-friendly” politician, one who was earning the endorsements of musicians such as Will.i.am and Jay-Z while parading his affinity for new technologies (discussing the songs on his i-Pod, for instance. McCormick 31). Through the work of national organizations such as Rock the Vote and the media attention generated by iconic musicians, local efforts took advantage of new media technologies to engender interest and participation in the upcoming election — paralleling the Obama campaign’s historically unique blending of the netroots with the grassroots.
One of the more notable attempts to use media to heighten the politicization and mobilization of young people at the local level included the EVC-sponsored production of Journeys through the Red, White, and Blue (2008). Promoted as a “documentary produced by a team of New York City youth of color,” Journeys is divided into three parts following the biographies and perspectives of three young men (a Latino, an African-American, and a West African immigrant) grappling with the significance of the upcoming election and the U.S. democratic process more generally.
Conceptualized as an agent of change in its own right, the film was shown in countless high school and university settings in the build-up to the election (including high schools in New Jersey, Chicago, as well as colleges such as Hunter College, LaGuardia Community College, University of California at Santa Barbara, and Brooklyn College). Copies of the video were distributed to schools and institutions in fourteen states prior to the election and additional screenings took place at an array of film festivals, such as the Human Rights International Film Festival and the Social Justice Film Fiesta. As mentioned at the outset, the documentary’s renown earned it a special screening at Mount Vernon Square in Washington D.C. as a part of the three-night celebration that was “The People’s Inaugural,” sponsored by The Historical Society and held on the weekend prior to Senator Barack Obama’s swearing in as the country’s forty-fourth president on January 20, 2009.
The documentary was produced through EVC’s “YO-TV” program, which arranges for a select group of graduates from EVC’s high school documentary workshop to have a ten-month- long, paid internship producing a documentary project (http://www.evc.org/programs/yo-tv). All three parts of the video are formally organized in a nearly identical fashion despite being presented as products of three different points of view. However, rather than necessarily undermining the first-person ethos of the project, the structural similarities of the three different stories in the video serves to underscore the auto-ethnographic impulse of EVC by reminding us that each “voice” is supported by a collective of other youth producers whose life experiences are similarly underrepresented. Each of the three stories opens with one of the featured youth producers (Brian, Shon, and Tidiane) pondering the same question, “What is the value of my vote?” (Figure 26). While the content of each of their answers varies slightly, the format is consistent. The first-person approach is still evident, largely reinforced through narration delivered through direct address to the camera, ensuring that the authorial voice heard on the soundtrack is almost always tied to a particular body in the viewfinder (Figures 27-28). This represents continuity — across twenty-two years — between Journeys and Second Avenue, where Millie’s perspective was frequently communicated through an address to the camera with a slightly greater reliance upon a dubbed voiceover narration.
Another shared narrative characteristic in all three stories is a resort to traditional adult authority figures to resolve moments of uncertainty on the part of the young subjects. Such authority figures include parents of the highlighted producer in the case of the first two stories featuring Brian and Shon, Latino and African-American teenagers respectively. In the first story, Brian asks his mother about the value of participating in the political process and as a result he says he’s learned details from his mother’s past, details of which he was unaware, which include her award for past service as vice-president of the local Parent-Teacher Association (Figure 30). Shon similarly speaks to his father, Rudy McGoy, about the son’s skepticism towards voting, largely couched in general disdain for the government as a whole (Figure 31). The elder McGoy gently reminds his son to take time to learn about the value of voting and to conduct a little research about the “political process” before shrugging off voting rights so casually. “I think you’re making a lot of assumptions without being informed.” Both Brian and Shon perform dutifully on camera as sons willing to learn from their elders even as they freely express skepticism.
Two of the stories resort to and reaffirm another form of adult authority: academics. Shon and Tidiane turn to academics to provide some context for the particular concerns each has about the voting process. Shon’s uncertainty about voting means he has to gain a greater communal respect for the historical legacy of civil rights struggle. As part of his “growth” process (this being the driving narrative impulse for all three stories), Shon speaks with Esmeralda Simmons, a faculty member at Medgar Evers College, specifically in the College’s Center for Law and Social Justice (Figure 33). Simmons implores Shon to remember the history of African-Americans’ struggle for the right to vote; that is part of who he is (“They’re your people!”). While acknowledging that voting cannot be seen as a panacea, Simmons underscores for Shon in rather practical terms how voting can be an important tactic within a broader overall strategy for social change. Specifically, she paints a picture of a self-interested politician who cannot afford to ignore the needs of a powerful and mobilized voting bloc.
Tidiane, as a twenty-two year-old African immigrant from Guinea, is frustrated that despite paying taxes he has no voting rights. To buttress and, to some extent, validate this feeling, Tidiane interviews political science professor from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Ron Hayduk (Figure 34). In the interview Hayduk agrees with Tidiane, calling the policy that denies immigrants the right to vote in spite of paying taxes “inconsistent.” The distinction between the two scenes —Tidiane has his views affirmed while Shon has his challenged — shouldn’t obscure the fact that in both cases the young producers passively receive scholars’ knowledge. To some extent, these scenes give the feeling of the “banking concept” of pedagogy critiqued by Freire even as the three young producers’ stories seem like acts of young expressivity, of youth speaking out.
Tidiane’s frustration over legal barriers to his civic participation indicates how Journeys — while ultimately underscoring the value and import of voting — introduces a number of caveats throughout all three stories. Rather than merely celebrate voting as the be-all and end-all of democratic citizenship, the stories which make up Journeys introduce viewers to structural impediments, to elements that diminish the impact of voting, reminding us that there are limits to what the ballot box can do. In Brian’s segment, the film addresses the Electoral College and its curtailment of democratic principles. Through a series of hand-drawn illustrations, Brian explains to viewers that the College is inherently anti-democratic by essentially allotting a disproportionate share of voting power to electors from small states (where the electoral points granted to individual states are disproportionate compared to their actual share of the country’s total population; Figures 36-38). Shon’s story includes an interview with his older brother, Ryan, who has served in Iraq for over a year (Figure 39). Ryan insists that the problems he’s experienced as a veteran (such as inadequate financial support and medical care for returning troops) probably will not change as a result of the elections. The only way to ultimately bring about change is — in Ryan’s view — “war, civil wars, [rather than by] voting.” Tidiane’s experience as an immigrant is also reinforced by several key scenes which document the legal and bureaucratic hurdles he faces that keep him from feeling integrated in the U.S. democratic process. These scenes include his failed attempt to fill out a voter’s registration form (in which his pen hovers over the blank space reserved for the last four digits of his social security number; Figure 40), the intolerable length he’s waited for his “papers” to arrive after he begins the process of becoming a citizen (Figure 42), and a meeting with an immigration lawyer who explains to Tidiane that there’s no way he’ll be able to vote in 2008; instead it will be five years before he’ll be legally allowed to vote in any election (Figure 43).
The inclusion of these structural impediments to democracy in the United States notwithstanding, Journeys ultimately ensures that the audience members will embrace their civic responsibility by voting in 2008. All three of the stories end on near identical notes. In the two stories featuring Shon and Tidiane, each of the young subjects finds himself volunteering at the west Philadelphia campaign headquarters for Barack Obama, ultimately hitting the streets as a canvasser for the Obama campaign (Figures 44-50). In parallel scenes of their training as canvassers, shouts of familiar slogans are heard on the soundtrack (“Fired up and ready to go!” and “Yes we can!”). Brian’s story ends on an interview with a local politician (Miguel Martinez, New York City councilman for District 10) in which Brian’s questions (suggested by his “mother and friends”) about mobilizing youth to get involved in the political process are to his mind fully answered (Figure 51).
In synchronous final scenes, all three stories conclude with their respective subjects testifying at “We Run This Vote: Youth Arts and Politics Festival,” sponsored by an organization dedicated to arts education in the Bronx (DreamYard) and held at The Point in the South Bronx (www.dreamyard.com; Figures 54-58). Brian declares that he has developed a “better appreciation for his politics” after having “started out not caring about the vote.” On the same stage Shon states that the government “fears the youth vote” and ultimately maintains that “voting is power.” Of course, he reminds his audience, “voting is not enough…you have to be informed about the issues.” Tidiane shares his insights as an outsider, someone who is “from a country where politics doesn’t matter to nobody.” As a student in the United States, he speaks of his admiration for a political process that holds elections regularly and places term limits on Presidents, ultimately leading him to believe that the potential for participation as a citizen is greater in the United States than in his own country. While acknowledging the legal restrictions on his ability to vote, his experience at EVC’s YO-TV has given him the opportunity to realize “that participation is bigger than just voting” and that there are opportunities for him to assist other immigrants like himself become U.S. citizens. The cheers from the audience that greet all three young producers register the completion of a narrative of “growth,” from a position of apathy towards voting to a consciousness of the value of a participatory politics that valorizes voting while also suggesting that this is never enough.
The parallels between Journeys and Second Avenue are numerous. In addition to presenting the young subject as active within the image, a visible presence, in order to help the audience easily identify the presumed author of the documentary, both videos also obscure the identities of the videographer(s), the primary handler(s) of the camera. This textual maneuver gestures away from the terms of the video’s production even as each makes obligatory nods towards the collaborative nature of the video’s creation. In each of the videos the protagonists are youth of color whose social status is essentially located at the margins of public discourse. To varying degrees the videos are themselves about the realities of marginalization and the possibility of a political praxis that might undo or reverse these realities.
Nevertheless, the videos diverge from one another on a variety of fronts. Specifically, each video is a mirror image of the other in the way that each represents adult authority figures. The quiet respect for and acceptance of the adult figures in Journeys is largely overturned by Second Avenue where adults are depicted as in need of mobilization (Millie’s family members as well as neighbors in her building), ineffectual (the building superintendent caught on camera), or as part of a corrupt and exploitative New York housing system (the administrative representative for the landlord as well as the landlord himself). The exception is, of course, the reporter from City Limits, whose testimony affirms and relates Millie’s experience to a broader citywide problem with slumlords. A further exception includes the ever present yet visibly absent role of the adult teacher (either Goodman himself or another adult supervisor) whose importance never needs stating since it is central to a process that is publicly associated with EVC’s name. Yet these exceptions fail to derail Second Avenue’s overall implication that Millie’s young expressivity can serve as a wake-up call, not a solution but an incitement to organize and collectively resist structural conditions that are fundamentally unjust. The unpredictable agency of youth and the threat of visibility felt by administrators of city slums position the majority of adult figures in the video as in need of activation or confrontation. Journeys, on the other hand, signifies the opposite: its young subjects have their horizons expanded by adults in their lives, whether the adult is a parent, scholar, activist, or politician.
Most significant, however, is the divergence of the two videos in terms of the camera’s engagement with social reality. Second Avenue presents moments of shock, of unexpected encounters with the camera. The building’s superintendent is caught with his shirt off, standing in his doorway, and on the defensive as a thoroughly visible camera documents his response to the tenants. Similarly, the administrator for the landlord is evidently caught off-guard by a surprise confrontation involving not only a camera but a mobilized collective of tenants demanding improvements in their living conditions. These two key moments of surprise engagement and unexpected visibility are critical to the video’s overall project of not only drawing attention to an important problem but also unveiling the disdainful attitudes of those in positions of power. In this regard, following Egan, certain inevitabilities might appear precarious, contingent, and open to questioning as a previously silenced voice – in its singularity – unsettles what is normally taken for granted.
On the other side, Journeys deploys a largely static camera setup in order to accommodate a more formal and presentational style on the part of the young producers. Transparently prepared remarks, including speeches and awkward interstitial transitions in the video’s exposition, suggest an overly managed narrative of personal growth in all three of the highlighted stories (Figure 60). Journeys, as a result, presents no moments of incitement or confrontation where discomfort with either questioning or the presence of the camera is ever apparent. Its presentation of racialized realness ultimately glosses over the threat of alterity, of otherness, to the status quo by recuperating these marginalized voices into a largely romantic, albeit qualified narrative of U.S. democracy.
Both videos are clear illustrations of how EVC’s practice reflects and problematizes both Goodman’s discourse as well as a broader discourse on young self-expressivity. In Second Avenue, auto-ethnographic aesthetics are engaged to call attention to delinquent landlord behavior fuelled by racist and class structural realities in the city. Journeys seeks to impart a sense of civic responsibility to minority youth alienated from the political process. Each video, in its own way, embodies a tension between young expressive selves and the absent but influential educators. This forces us to think about how young self-expressivity is entangled with “adult” communitarian desires and institutional pressures, foregrounding the discursive and tenuous status of the young selves depicted onscreen. However, the spontaneity of Second Avenue and its embrace of an aggressive videography that often catches subjects off-guard keeps the participatory process in the unstable foreground and reminds us of the text’s contingency and partiality. We’re less concerned about the impact of the absent but decisive role of the educators because the video embraces an open-ended narrative with no forced solutions.
In contrast, the static, formal, and even more “professional” quality of Journeys discussed above makes us more suspect about the influence of institutional pressures. While cognizant of the contradictions of U.S. democracy, the video ultimately situates these within a broader embrace of the U.S. political system. This particular presentation of three youth of color undergoing a narrative premised on personal growth and a concluding public testimony to this fact reminds us of Fleetwood’s comments about youth media’s association with a yearning for racialized realness. This staging of alterity and its incorporation into a relatively narrow understanding of civic responsibility and citizenship is more consistent with a therapeutic practice in which the subject’s transformation is the main show.
Put another way, youth media and participatory media cultures compel a consideration of the value of self-expressivity and critically-oriented vocationalism, as well as the persistence of a politics of surveillance and objectification towards youth of color. Educational exposure to the process of documentary production holds the promise of teaching important job skills, critical thinking skills, as well as the possibility of drawing attention to important social issues. However, as a few resulting texts become disentangled from their originating mode of production and circulate to a wider public audience across an array of exhibition outlets (as was the case with Journeys), they acquire a particular meaning in a broader public sphere and contribute something to representations of minority youth. In this context, the performance of young, racialized angst resonates with the public’s fetishistic interest in “unmediated access to the mind and experiences of racialized youth.”
Such a fetishistic interest can most clearly be seen now in the success of autobiographical reality programs whose depiction of the experiences of minority youth are consistently held within a horizon of the self, of personal growth and responsibility. This therapeutic zone blunts the potential for young self-expressivity to speak more pointedly to social conflict, entrenched hierarchies, and stifling living conditions. In her book, Girls Make Media, Mary Celeste Kearney acknowledges the need to resist an over-romanticized take on youth production, highlighting the issue of access (14-15). To be sure, Kearney is correct to highlight the racial and economic barriers to media production as critical qualifiers to a “celebratory” take on youth cultural production (14). However, we should also keep in mind Fleetwood’s observations to consider how an ethos of expressivity, self-display, and production can be re-wired to accommodate new forms of fetishization in new media environments. In other words, we need to recognize the difference between Millie’s claim to be heard and Brian, Shon, and Tidiane’s claim to have grown.